A bit of history. Before the 1970s, there were no women’s distance running races in the Olympics. After the conquest of the women’s right to run in the early 1970s, we can see that women have had an extremely rapid growth in their participation and performance (figure 2), which shows the significant effects of social aspects on performance. These social aspects were dominant in the early 1900’s, and as the quality of life changed, this strongly influenced marathon performance in both men and women.
We can see from the graph (figure 2) that women have had an extremely rapid growth in their marathon performances, which shows the importance social aspects in performance. Quality of life strongly influences marathon performance, which prevails at the personal level for women.
The lack of consideration of social and economic factors has led to misleading predictions about the possibility of a woman running a faster marathon than a man as early as 2050 (Figure 3). An article on this very subject even appeared in the prestigious journal Nature (Whipp et al. Ward, 1992). Tabloid magazines have published sensational articles on this subject in order to increase its “impact factor” which contributes to the magazine ratings by the number of readers.
The Boston marathon, the oldest in the world, (123nd edition in 2019) already had a very strong growth (figure 4) in the number of sub 3-hour finishers hours between 1968 and 1976. Between 1968 and 1976, the increase in the number of marathons in the United States has exploded 300% and all the while women were still banned from competing!
Recall the merit of Kathrine Switzer, born in 1947, who was inspired by Roberta Louise “Bobbi” Gibb, an American, having completed the Boston marathon in 1966 in 3 hours 21 minutes and 25 seconds, but without being officially entered in the race. Kathrine Switzer asked her university cross-country coach to let her run the marathon with him. Her coach refused, stating that a woman was not “tough enough” to run and that this could have the consequence of her “uterus falling out or masculinizing her”. She convinced him nevertheless by running distances greater than the marathon during training. Switzer entered the Boston marathon and was granted a number as there were no rules specifying that a woman could not compete. It is said that Switzer was issued a number through an “oversight” in the entry screening process. She started the Boston marathon, even though the “official rules” prohibited women from participating and was treated as an interloper when the error was discovered. On the day of the race, she was encouraged by the other participants to continue but at the fourth mile, the race organizer (Jock Semple) tried to physically remove her from the race. She was heroically defended by her coach and other runners and finished in 4 hours and 20 minutes, one hour more than the time of her hero Bobbi Gibb. Following her race, Kathrine Switzer was disqualified and suspended by the American Athletics Federation, losing her right to compete in races. The organization explicitly forbid women from participating in any competition with male runners. Switzer then campaigned the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to participate in the marathon and for a women’s marathon to be on the Olympic program. In 1972, the Boston Marathon was officially opened to women. In 1984 the first Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles took place and was won in 2h24min52s (an incredible time) by an American runner.
Switzer won the New York Marathon in 1974 with a time of 3 hours 7 minutes and 29 seconds (59th overall). She competed in a total of 35 marathons and her best time was 2 hours 51 minutes 37 seconds (Boston, 1975). In 2017, fifty years after her first participation, she again participated in the Boston Marathon, with the same bib number 261 as in 1967, and finished the race in 4 hours 44 minutes and 31 seconds. The current women’s marathon record is 2 hours and 15 minutes, only 11% slower than the fastest male. Even more interesting is that the average difference between mid-pack male and females (over 4h06min) is 30 minutes which is also 11%.